That Puzzle Guy's Blog The USA Today crossword's worst nightmare

22Apr/16Off

Pity the fool

Well, it's been three weeks and chatter about the recent American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has died down. So, finally, who wants to hear about how I crapped the bed this year?

Before I get to that, though, big-time congratulations to first-time champion Howard Barkin. While I'd be lying if I said my primary emotion weren't weighty disappointment in my own performance, Howard's a great guy who's been knocking on the door for a while, and I'm very happy for him. I also want to thank the constructors for a terrific set of puzzles, and Will Shortz and his team of officials for making it all happen. Even though I fell woefully short of what I set out to do, there were still positives to be taken away from the weekend.

Now then, the tale of my undoing. This includes a picture of the offending solution grid as well as other spoilers, so if you have yet to do the at-home solving, you probably should avoid clicking through.

2Feb/16Off

Resistance is (sometimes) futile

Before I dived back into the stress of Mystery Hunt, I took some time on a Thursday in Boston to check out Boda Borg. In talking about it with friends before I went, I described it as a bunch of escape rooms, but with a strong physical component. This proved to be fairly accurate, but my experience nonetheless wasn't quite what I had in my head.

The labyrinthine facility is a series of "quests." Players have their run of the place; unlike an escape room with a set start time, they can duck into any available quest they like at any time. Each quest is a sequence of at least two rooms; successfully navigating all of them opens up a box with a stamp that teams can use on their logs to prove their triumph. Completion of a room might involve solving a puzzle, completing a test of skill in a limited time, touching a few sensors simultaneously, or, often, simply reaching the other side of the room without touching the floor.

I was part of teams that completed 8.333 of the sixteen quests: Farm, Step Up, Pirates, Platoon, Rats, Dansa Pausa, Coach, all three segments of Quiz Show (Grab Bag, Entertainment, and Sports; I'm counting them as one-third each), and the initial Tough portion of Tough Tougher Toughest. I was pretty pleased with that total, though I'm disappointed a few more eluded us. Rats was probably my favorite, with Platoon being the most satisfying to finally get after repeated failure.

Unfortunately, the quests are unforgiving; any misstep by any teammate will cause a failure, and the entire team must exit through a side door and start all over. Players can try as many times as they like, but frustration and fatigue are bound to set in eventually as teams repeat the same rooms again and again only to meet with failure after a scant few more minutes of struggling. What's more, sometimes we couldn't even tell what caused our failure. I think particularly of the Spider quest. After two fairly grueling rooms, the third room involved negotiating the space without touching the floor. On at least two occasions, we reached the end of the room confident we'd succeeded, only to see the failure symbol on the screen. Motivation for trying again gets sapped quickly when you don't know what you're doing wrong, especially when it takes so much effort just to get back to that point.

Another criticism was about the Quiz Show questions, many of which were very poorly written. Misspellings ran rampant; what's more, sometimes they were genuine mistakes, but other times they were the reason an answer was right or wrong. I recall at least one question that had more than one plausible answer. In short, they really need a solid editing job. Also, a few of the rooms broke while we were in there and had to be shut down temporarily. With so much automation in these elaborate rooms, things are going to break once in a while, but it's still frustrating to waste time on an impossible task.

Overall, though, I had several very fun and very tiring hours there and would recommend it to anyone who likes escape rooms, doesn't mind sweating a fair bit, and enjoys tacos. (Oh, right, did I mention the all-you-can-eat taco bar you can enjoy when you need a break?) Just make sure you get the kneepads. Trust me on this one.

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25Jan/16Off

I dreamed a dream

As you may have noticed, I've become pretty lazy in discussing my various doings in the puzzle world. I need to make the effort for the 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt, however, because my team ran it. You can get plenty of perspectives elsewhere from competitors and my teammates alike, and I don't want to put another retread here. I'll just share what I was involved in and share a few personal thoughts.

I was pleased to have my fingers in more puzzles in this Hunt than I did in 2008 and 2010 combined. Try them out yourself, or just click Solution in the upper right if you just want to see how it worked. The list:

  • Always Amusing: I was pleased to make a puzzle on this subject, but I wish I'd attached more importance to the information being hard to find. I edited a wiki just before the event, but I'm not sure it helped.
  • It's So Obvious!: I wanted to do a puzzle about Wheel of Fortune gaffes, and it got blended nicely with an idea from Joe DeVincentis. Joe did most of the legwork on it.
  • The Sound of Silence: A simple idea that I think I put in a tidy package.
  • 1, 2, 3: Another fairly simple one for Dreamtime.
  • Boxes™: This tested much harder than I thought it would; hopefully we made changes to achieve the right level of difficulty.
  • A League of Their Own: Co-authored with Jeremy Horwitz, from an idea by Nathan Fung, at 5 AM Saturday morning. Yes, really. Hopefully you couldn't tell.
  • One Starry Night: Probably my most favorably reviewed puzzle of the Hunt. Funny and relatively easy; I hope it provided a breather at the late stages.
  • Gravitational Pull: Mike Sylvia's idea; I executed the grid. Pretty pleased with how it turned out considering the additional difficult Limbo constraint.
  • Trivial Mathematics: I had the idea to bring back the classic Calculatrivia from GAMES Magazine; Jeremy Horwitz and Wil Zambole did the hard work.
  • Time Suck: I'm not sorry.

I want to address the tech issues we experienced just as the event was about to start; the fallout from it was undoubtedly a major complaint. I don't have all the details, but as you might suspect, it caused no small amount of distress at Hunt HQ. Fortunately, several brilliant minds on our team worked together a good back-up plan, and we had it in place for the Hunt to start a mere hour behind schedule. It obviously was not ideal and not the system we had in mind; checking answers was a bit more chaotic, and our puzzle-unlocking mechanism reverted to releasing entire rounds at once. Overall, I think it went very well; when you get right down to it, I don't believe the issues dramatically affected players' enjoyment of the puzzles themselves. We took a potential Hunt-destroying catastrophe and turned it into a mere pain in the ass. I think that's a credit to us. I've heard insinuations that we didn't have our tech straight because were focused on other less necessary tasks, like the T-shirt sales. I find that a huge insult to the people who poured hours upon hours into the extremely tricky job of getting the website up and running. Fault our execution if you must; it didn't work out the way any of us would have liked. But I will not put up with disparagement of our effort.

I think many of us Hunt participants are losing sight of the fact that that this wonderful weekend of puzzling is the result of hundreds and hundreds of person-hours of unpaid labor over the course of a whole year. I think I did to an extent; it doesn't really hit home until one helps to write a Hunt. Some criticism is fair, of course, but some is not (see above), and comments in the latter category might dissuade people from lending their minds to the construction effort again. That can only be bad for the future of this fantastic event. I resolve going forward to be more appreciative of the Mystery Hunts I play and to be careful and measured with any problems I voice. I hope others can do the same, whether they've helped to make one happen or not.

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9Nov/15Off

RIP Henry Hook and Doug Hoylman

I'm at a loss, folks. An utterly miserable year for our puzzling family somehow manages to get worse.

Henry Hook was a brilliant puzzle constructor with a unique personality. He was known for being gruff and perhaps even rude, but also for a terrific sense of humor, and he was well-liked in our community. His sadly out-of-print "Hooked On" series of puzzle books are still seen as some of the best around. I still remember riding the elevator with him at my very first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2001; he wore a shirt that said "Yes, That's My Final F***ing Answer." We didn't speak; I was terrified (not to mention sixteen years old). I saw him again lingering outside the ballroom after the end of the ACPT a few years ago, and again I failed to stop and have a chat. Through all those years, I don't think I ever formally met the man, and that is to my profound regret.

Doug Hoylman was one of the best solvers in ACPT history, racking up six titles, which is tied for the second-most ever. He was very quiet, yet merciless during the competition, earning him the nickname Iceman. I would greet Doug at every tournament, but having long conversations wasn't his style. He let his solving do the talking and it spoke very loudly indeed. He did indulge in some whimsy one year, taking part in a prank on me in which many contending solvers wore the same Trogdor The Burninator T-shirt that I used to wear every tournament Sunday. Seeing a player of his credentials participate made it all the more enjoyable for everyone involved.

We'll miss you, gentlemen.

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12Jun/15Off

RIP Leslie Billig

With the puzzle world still reeling over the death of Thomas Gazzola, many of us heard the news on Thursday that we lost another friend.

Leslie Billig was a regular attendee of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and a longtime puzzle editor for Penny Press and GAMES, among other outlets. While I personally did not socialize with her often, she had a great influence on many excellent puzzlemakers working today, and I see many of them fondly recalling interacting with her in both a professional and social setting. ACPT attendees can still recall Leslie's "Crossword Idol"-winning performance a decade ago of "My Will," a Jerome Kern parody about Will Shortz. She was a beloved mainstay of our community and she's gone far too soon.

I really would like to stop writing this sort of entry now.

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11Jun/15Off

RIP Thomas Gazzola

This is probably the shittiest way to return to post here, but I had to make some attempt, however inadequate, to memorialize a dear friend that we lost this week.

I knew Tom Gazzola through the National Puzzlers' League, in which he went by the alias of Maso. I always enjoyed seeing him at our annual convention, which he hosted in 2012. He hosted a few editions of his game invention, It Takes Two (formerly Doubles Jeopardy). It quickly became a hit and one of the must-play homemade games of the weekend. His wit and innovation shined through, whether it was the creative ways to get two people to team up to answer trivia questions or the other amusing touches he brought to his presentation, such as making answer values increments of one penny rather than $100. In 2011 in Providence, I was fortunate enough to land on his team for the extravaganza, the suite of interconnected puzzles that is the climax of the convention. We and our other two teammates worked together seamlessly and took home the victory. Participants need both puzzle skills and interpersonal skills to achieve that, and Tom was a great ally on both fronts. Tom was also a teammate at the MIT Mystery Hunt, which we also won this year. We were in the midst of planning the 2016 event, and it will be much poorer without his creativity and enthusiasm.

But it wasn't all just puzzling and gaming with Tom; he was a joy to socialize with as well. He had a calm, quiet demeanor, even while cracking a joke, which he often did. Over the last several days, I've read so many friends' fond memories of interacting with him, whether it was as a relative, puzzler colleague, friend, confidant, and/or student. Quite simply, he made people feel good. I saw him only at the occasional puzzle event and I feel a void due to his passing; I can't imagine the magnitude of the loss for those lucky enough to interact with him daily.

Rest in peace, friend. We won't forget you.

Lastly: For fuck's sake, never, ever, ever drink and drive. Your selfishness might take someone special out of this world.

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28Jul/14Off

To the rescue

Last week, I returned from the annual National Puzzlers' League convention, which this year was held in Portland, Maine. As usual, I had a fantastic time solving and socializing with my puzzling family, and I still have a pile of cryptics I never got to!

The capstone to the convention is the Saturday night extravaganza, in which attendees work in teams of four to solve a big set of interconnected puzzles, leading to a satisfying final meta answer. This year's event took a different approach; while there was a small group of people heading up the design, every puzzle was constructed by a different NPL member. These contributors could still play in the extravaganza; they just had to recuse themselves from helping with their own puzzle. I was one of the people approached to make a puzzle, and I did so, but due to an abundance of grid puzzles, it was left on the cutting-room floor. But hey, that's what the Internet is for; I've posted it here for your enjoyment. As with all hunt-style puzzles, you seek a single word or short phrase as your final answer, and I warn you that this puzzle is completely untested and unedited. You can contact me if you see something I really should change.

Looking ahead, here's another reminder of the upcoming Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament in New York City. I've test-solved the first drafts of the puzzles and I can say that some fun challenges await you. I once again will fail to attend because I am super-lame. You should go so you can be not super-lame.

15Jun/14Off

Battles of wits

Hello again, solvers! Since my last post, I've had my second-worst performance ever on the US Puzzle Championship, failed yet another Real Escape Game, won at The Grimm Escape, and pulled out a nail-biting triumph at the Shinteki Decathlon. They were all fun except for maybe the USPC, and even that had high quality; it's just that it was dwarfed by my incompetence.

Looking to the future, it's nearly the season for local crossword tournaments! First up is Lollapuzzoola 7 on Saturday, August 9th, which, you might note, is a Saturday in August. This fun and freewheeling tournament is sure to bring another solid batch of creative, original puzzles. September, specifically the 13th, brings the Bay Area Crossword Tournament, also marking its seventh year. Solve the next week's New York Times puzzles in advance in pursuit of the tournament prize and in support of Families of SMA. Then, in October, competitive puzzling heads south for the next edition of Crosswords LA. Check back soon for more details on that, but for now, I can report that I've amicably stepped down from the Puzzle Wrangler position, which will be filled expertly by Amy Reynaldo. I still plan to be on hand to officiate.

Go get 'em, everyone.

10May/14Off

This one’s a keeper

Two weeks ago, I had great fun at DASH 6; it was a lovely San Francisco day and the puzzles were excellent. To top it off, the three-man League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen finished in first place worldwide! This was a very gratifying accomplishment after our near miss last year. Keep an eye on that site to check out the puzzles, which I assume will go up after the upcoming rerun in Minneapolis.

The event also served as another chance for a hunt management app called ClueKeeper to show its stuff. I want to post about it here because it's really taken some big strides forward in recent weeks and I think it's revolutionary for the experience of playing and designing hunts.

ClueKeeper makes it easy to manage the mechanisms that go into running a hunt, including team registration, scoring, leaderboards, hint dispensation, answer confirmation, and even verification through GPS that a team is in the correct location! It also supports different structures for the puzzles themselves; designers can use start codes (which can start the puzzle's timer and hint countdown), include a batch of mini-puzzles that all go together (possibly including a metapuzzle), and choose to accept partial answers.

As a solver, I really like having all my previous ClueKeeper-based hunts stored in my account. It's nice to look back on the events I've done and how my teams did in them. And, thanks to a bunch of new self-guided, play-anytime hunts that recently became available, that history will only get deeper! I've already enjoyed the Sunset Pub Crawl, and I took advantage of an early sale to pick up the Las Vegas and Philadelphia hunts in anticipation of visits to those places later this year. I'm looking forward to seeing that page get longer as more designers jump in!

ClueKeeper's next event is the Shinteki Decathlon, one of my favorite puzzling days of the year. I'll be playing on the 24th, the first weekend. Can't wait!

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14Mar/14Off

Two much

I had a fun weekend at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I saw a lot of puzzle cronies, made some new ones, and caught up with a few old friends outside the tournament. You probably care more about the fact that I finished second for the third time.

I don't have a lot of interesting commentary about Puzzles 1 through 7. They were enjoyable, well-crafted crosswords; I'd be a very happy man if every puzzle I solved were that good. My ascent to second place, though, was relatively drama-free, as I got there early and slowly made myself comfortable just behind Dan Feyer and, more importantly, ahead of the nearest rivals. The one bump in the road was when I finished Puzzle 2 with the dreaded "59" showing on the right half of the clock, meaning I'd missed out on 25 points by a margin of one second. I thought that was an ill omen, but by the end of Puzzle 6, my lead over third place had ballooned to four minutes' worth of points, and my advantage over fourth place, the first non-finalist spot, was a whopping six minutes. My approach on Sunday morning's Puzzle 7 was thus very conservative; I took just a little bit of the edge off my solving speed and took ninety seconds to check my answers (I found no mistakes in that span).


The championship showdown looked a little different this year, as Howard Barkin, a 2010 finalist, stepped into third place to face Dan and me on stage. The puzzle, a beauty by Mike Shenk, was, of course, tough as nails. I slammed in a few answers right away, but then I immediately got stuck. I don't know how long I stood there not writing anything; it couldn't have been more than two minutes or so, but it felt like an eternity. The thought was inescapable: I just lost the tournament. I knew what it took to beat Dan, and standing there stumped for more than a few moments was not part of that formula. Sure enough, Dan stepped away from his board and, through my headphones, I detected none of the rumblings I've felt when an opponent has submitted an imperfect solution. Once more, I was playing for the silver medal.

Fortunately, once I looked past my roadblock to toeholds in other parts of the puzzle, I picked up a pretty good head of steam. There was the occasional misstep here and there, but for the most part I did pretty well for the rest of my solve. Good thing, too, because I claimed second prize less than thirty seconds before Howard finished his grid. For me, though, what mattered was that I missed another shot at the title, and Dan was crowned champion for the fifth straight time, matching the streak I'd put together immediately before his.

Let's not pretend these streaks are equal, though. For four of my five titles, I needed a mistake from an on-stage opponent (or, in 2009, both of them) to claim the championship. Only once, in 2006, did I actually complete the final puzzle first. Dan, on the other hand, has barnstormed his way through all five finals, finishing first and perfectly every time. The only year he needed some major luck was 2012, when he had an error in a Saturday puzzle and got back into the top three in a tournament rife with mistakes among the top solvers. And even then, his on-stage performance was dominant. I still believe I deserved my titles, certainly, but my streak was a hell of a lot flukier than Dan's.

So now what? You can get a glimpse into my post-tournament state of mind in this Time article (one of the best pieces I've ever seen covering the event). When I claimed my prize from Will Shortz, he commented that I was just about the only guy who's disappointed by second place. I see his point; by an objective standard, I did great. But after climbing the mountain several times, it's just not good enough for me. I don't fly across the country to be runner-up. It seems clear to me, though, that I'm a step behind, and, barring yet another big-time stroke of luck, I need to improve my skills on that final puzzle in order to claim another win.

My target does need to be Puzzle 8. Obviously, making the top three is never a guarantee, but my skills on the first seven puzzles are up to snuff, particularly if I practice a little more. I lost two minutes to Dan on Puzzles 1 through 7 this year: one on my very near miss in Puzzle 2, and the other on my conservative approach to the Sunday morning crossword. Take those away and I'm in a flat-footed tie. There's no reason for me to doubt myself anymore to that point in the tournament. But it's that tough puzzle that always seems to get me. There's always been a wrong answer, or a slightly overly long pause, or a really really overly long pause. If I seem like I'm losing confidence in the ability I take to the championship puzzle, that's not directly because of Dan, but because I see a biggish gap between my solving and what's required to win the championship now. The path back to triumph is to speed-solve the toughest crosswords I can find, and to do it on paper and not the computer. And, while I'm not about to set up a big crossword easel in my studio apartment, perhaps I could look at my approach to solving in that setting. If I improve to the point where I can eliminate my miscues and pauses, I'll have a good shot to win regardless of what anyone else does.

Now that I feel a little more focused, I think there will be more training in the year ahead. I remain a busy person and there are lots of things I do that I enjoy more than speed-solving. Practice is not going to dominate my schedule by any means. But if I get myself the right materials, there's no reason I can't do it at least a little bit every day or two. I have it in my head that I need to get better in order to win again, and if I don't make the effort, I have nobody to blame but myself.